The “tale” that Israeli writer Amos Oz tells in his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003; translated into English by Nicholas de Lange, 2004), is at once a writer’s coming-of-age story, a boy’s heartbreaking experience of coming-to-grief, grief that permanently tempers the innocence of childhood, and, because of when and where the tale takes place, a man’s account of coming-to-terms with being a citizen of a nation born in violence and against the wishes of its political neighbours.
Immediately upon its publication in Hebrew, it quickly became the best-selling literary work in Israeli history. At home and in various foreign translations (especially in Germany, where Oz was honoured with the Goethe Prize in 2005), A Tale of Love and Darkness was recognized as the masterpiece of Oz’s lengthy writing career. He was already among the first rank of his country’s most widely-regarded writers, along with Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua.
Oz is also the author of a dozen well-received novels, from the early My Michael (1968) to a post-modernist fable about writing and writers, Rhyming Life and Death (2007; tr. 2009), as well as the passionate writer of several volumes of social and political reportage, the best known of which is probably In the Land of Israel (1983). But the reception of Oz’s memoir went beyond anything his previous books had elicited.
Fellow novelist David Grossman was among the first to pronounce A Tale of Love and Darkness “his masterpiece.” The Israeli scholar Amos Elon noted that Oz’s “moving and frank autobiography” was rightly “praised as his finest book so far” upon publication in his native land (“In Abraham’s Vineyard,” The New York Review of Books, Dec. 16, 2004). John Leonard called “this indelible memoir” a “glorious, masterly lamentation, these ‘Speak, Memory!’ Dead Sea Scrolls” (“‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’: Motherland,” The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2004). Alberto Manguel declared Oz “one of our essential writers,” and heralded his Tale as an “extraordinary, luminous, wise and important book” (“In the Land of Israel,” The Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2004). For novelist Linda Grant, it was “one of the funniest, most tragic and touching books I have ever read” (“The Burden of History,” The Guardian, Sept. 11, 2004).
I, too, add my amen to the chorus of praise accorded to A Tale of Love and Darkness, while at the same time recognizing that there are other eminent autobiographies and memoirs, as well as literary biographies, that mark the first decade of the 21st century. Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale (2002; translated into English by Edith Grossman, 2003) is an equally shimmering evocation of a childhood home in a remote corner of the world; Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (2006) is the enactment of a remarkable autobiographical quest; and Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (2008) is about as unvarnished a literary life story of a Nobel Prize winning author as can be imagined. But Oz’s Tale tears at the heart in ways unsurpassed by any of its peers. When I began re-reading it recently, I thought I’d only read 50 or so pages, just to refresh my memory in order to write about it. Instead, I re-read the whole 500 pages of it, and at the end felt the same shuddering sorrow that I experienced the first time I read it.
Love and Darkness begins, unprepossessingly enough, in a “tiny, low-ceilinged, ground-floor flat” in the city of Jerusalem, where Oz was born in 1939.
My parents slept on a sofa bed that filled their room almost from wall to wall when it was opened up each evening. Early every morning they used to shut away this bed deep into itself, hide the bedclothes in the chest underneath, turn the mattress over, press it all tight shut, and conceal the whole under a light grey cover, then scatter a few embroidered oriental cushions on top, so that all evidence of their night’s sleep disappeared. In this way their bedroom also served as study, library, dining room and living room.
That troubled marriage bed, which concealed the evidence of night, and whose daily folding up of its two large “jaws” served as a child’s giant “barking dog” fantasy image, will recurrently appear in Oz’s book and the presence or absence of its occupants, in states of sleep and insomnia, will be carefully charted.
The cramped family quarters were located on Amos Street in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Kerem Avraham (“Abraham’s Vineyard”) at the edge of northern Jerusalem. That’s where Amos Klausner — he didn’t change his name to Oz, a Hebrew word signifying “strength,” until he was in his mid-teens — grew up in the 1940s, the only child of Arieh Klausner and Fania Mussman (Klausner), two recent Jewish immigrants to the British-ruled protectorate of Palestine who had come from what were then parts of inter-war Poland.
Writing about all of this retrospectively from a desert outpost on the outskirts of the town of Arad, Israel, where he’s lived for the last quarter-century, Oz meticulously reimagines a childhood amid streets named for the minor Biblical prophets, in a neighbourhood whose parched ground, with unintentional irony, was meant to recall the fertile vineyard of one of Judaism’s mythical fathers, although, apart from “a dusty cypress tree,” the only other bit of vegetation within view, “a pale geranium planted in a rusty olive can, was gradually dying for want of a single ray of sunshine.”
Oz’s parents, who had been transplanted to Palestine by the spectre of an impending genocide that would only become fully apparent a few years later, thrived no better than the dying geranium. They were well-educated Jews from the edges of Europe, who despised the stetl, or village-life of most of their compatriots. They longed not for the exotic Zion to which they had reluctantly or stoically relocated, but for the cultured capitals of Europe. As Amos Elon observes of the disappointed lives of such European Jews, they had “escaped in time to the Promised Land but never found there what they expected.” Oz himself writes, “Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the 19th century.” His father had grown up “on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism, whose marzipan peaks were sprinkled, like a splash of champagne, with the virile frenzy of Nietzsche.” His mother drew on “the other romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key…”
There was a rumour of born-anew, “blond-haired, muscular, sun-tanned Hebrew Europeans,” a futuristic mythical race, that circulated in Oz’s childhood. Occasionally representatives of that glorious future would appear in Jerusalem’s marketplace, having trucked in from the local collective farm, or kibbutz. Those heroic figures would not be part of his parents’ world, but reserved for Oz’s own generation. The surprising appearance of a blond-haired, light-eyed son in the Klausner family was hailed as a kind of “genetic-ideological miracle,” as Oz jokingly told New Yorker writer David Remnick (“The Spirit Level,” The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2004).
Amos’s father, Arieh, was the nephew of a famous Jewish scholar and professor, Joseph Klausner, who taught at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University on the slopes of Mount Scopus. But Arieh’s own academic aspirations would be permanently disappointed. He had a degree in literature from the University of Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania) and a second degree from the university on Mount Scopus as well, “but he had no prospect of securing a teaching position in the Hebrew University at a time when the number of qualified experts in literature in Jerusalem far exceeded that of the students.” Worse, many of the other lecturers had “gleaming diplomas from famous German universities,” unlike Arieh’s own shabbier credentials. In the end, he had to settle for a job as a librarian in the National Library, and it was only after work that he “sat up late at night writing his books about the Hebrew novella or the concise history of world literature,” privately pursuing the career of a frustrated, independent scholar. Oz tells us that
My father was a cultivated, well-mannered librarian, severe yet also rather shy, who wore a tie, round glasses, and a somewhat threadbare jacket, who bowed before his superiors, leaped to open doors for ladies, insisted firmly on his few rights, enthusiastically cited lines of poetry in ten languages… and endlessly repeated the same repertoire of jokes (which he referred to as “anecdotes” or “pleasantries”).
He was, for young Amos, an oddly detached figure, a man who dreaded silence and felt compelled to forestall every potential instant of it with his “pleasantries.” As Amos Elon characterizes him, “The father was a dry pedant, a walking dictionary unable to have close relations with either his wife or child.” He jokily addressed his son in the third person as “His Highness” or “His Honour,” and delicately navigated among spouse, mistress, employers, relatives, and neighbours.
In Kerem Avraham, the neighbours “were petty clerks, small retailers, bank tellers or cinema ticket-sellers, schoolteachers or dispensers of private lessons, or dentists. They were not religious Jews… yet they lit candles on Friday night, to maintain some vestige of Jewishness and perhaps also as a precaution, to be on the safe side, you never know.” They were, however, people with opinions.
They all had very definite views about the British Mandate, the future of Zionism, the working class… the novels of Knut Hamsun, the Arab Question or Women’s Rights. There were all sorts of thinkers and preachers who called for… a campaign to explain to the Palestinian Arabs that they were not really Arabs but the descendents of the ancient Hebrews, or for a conclusive synthesis between the ideas of Kant and Hegel, the teachings of Tolstoy and Zionism… or for the promotion of goats’ milk or for an alliance with America and even with Stalin with the object of driving out the British, or for everyone to do some simple exercises every morning that would keep gloom at bay and purify the soul.
Elsewhere, in a volume of reportage, Under This Blazing Light (1975), Oz describes the Jerusalem of his childhood as a “lunatic town, ridden with conflicting dreams, a vague federation of different ethnic, national and religious communities, ideologies and aspirations… My Jerusalem childhood made me an expert in comparative fanaticism.”
In Kerem Avraham, “these neighbours, who would congregate in our little yard on Saturday afternoons to sip Russian tea were almost all dislocated people.” Though they all “knew how to analyse, with fierce rhetoric, the importance for the Jewish people to return to a life of agriculture and manual labour… whenever anyone needed to mend a fuse or change a washer or drill a hole in the wall, they would send for Baruch, the only man in the neighbourhood who could work such magic.”
As a child I could only dimly sense the gulf between their enthusiastic desire to reform the world and the way they fidgeted with the brim of their hat when they were offered a glass of tea, or the terrible embarrassment that reddened their cheeks when my mother bent over (just a little) to sugar their tea and her decorous neckline revealed a tiny bit more flesh than usual: the confusion of their fingers, that tried to curl into themselves and stop being fingers.
That’s one of the first appearances in the book of the enigmatic woman at the centre of the emotional labyrinth whose Ariadne-like thread Oz seeks to follow. His mother, Fania Mussman, one of three sisters, was the daughter of a former mill owner in the lakeside city of Rovno, in eastern Poland (now Ukraine), a mixed town of Poles and Russians, in which Jews made up the majority. She graduated from an elite Hebrew high school, and later studied briefly in Prague. Her education included an extensive curriculum of Jewish philosophy, ancient and modern Hebrew writers, and readings, in Hebrew translation of everyone from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Shakespeare and Goethe.
Oz makes an interesting literary move in order to vividly reconstruct his mother’s childhood in Rovno in the 1920s. He visits his surviving aunt Sonia (one of Fania’s sisters) in present day Tel Aviv. She tells him stories of her youth. About a quarter of the way into the book, Oz just lets her take over, and for about fifty pages there is simply the voice of his octegenarian aunt Sonia remembering her and her sisters’ girlhood, recounting the tales of long gone lives and the gossip about them. Eventually we learn that after the Mussman family had settled in Haifa in 1934, Rovno became the site where, a few years later, in the 1940s, on the outskirts of the city, in the Sosenki Forest, “among boughs, birds, mushrooms, currants, and berries,” the Nazis slaughtered more than twenty thousand Jews, with submachine guns, in the space of two days.
Fania was, as Elon says, “an imaginative woman who told Amos tales of faraway forests and snow-covered meadows teeming with fantastic creatures and ghosts…” Yet, “life in the miserable Kerem Avraham quarter must have been especially hard on her. She had few friends and was shut up at home for most of the time.” Oz makes clear that he was aware that his mother was adrift, that relations between his parents had deteriorated. Fania suffered from chronic bouts of depression that began with migraine headaches; as her melancholia grew alarmingly worse, she spent entire days and nights staring out of a narrow apartment window, while her husband slept fitfully in the fold-out bed, or migrated to his son’s tiny bedroom in order not to disturb his wife. Eventually she in turn moved to Amos’s bedroom, and the boy joined his father in the fold-out sofa in this itinerary of discordant unmusical beds.
As Oz told David Remnick, “Among the immediate reasons for my mother’s decline was the weight of history, the personal insult, the traumas, and the fear for the future. My mother had premonitions all the time… she might have sensed that what happened to the Jews in her home town would sooner or later happen here, that there would be a total massacre. This is not something she would share with a little boy, except perhaps obliquely, through some of the stories and fairy tales she told.”
Fania gradually neglected housework, all but stopped eating, and was tended by her husband and son like a child. It was the only time when father and son became close, “like a pair of stretcher-bearers carrying an injured person up a steep slope.” The reader learns early on in the story that Fania is doomed; at the end, she wanders the streets of Tel Aviv in a downpour, the very streets Oz himself will re-trace many years later; finally, she takes her life with an overdose of sedatives. Fania Klausner killed herself in January 1952. She was just thirty-eight years old; her son was twelve-and-a-half, only a few months short of his bar mitzvah. A year after her death, Arieh remarried. There had long been another woman in his life. Fania’s side of the family never spoke to him again.
A year later, at fifteen, Amos left home for good, joined the Hulda kibbutz, and changed his name to Oz. “I killed my father,” writes the Oedipal son, “I killed him particularly by changing my name.”
The porcelain-delicate portrait of the woman who was Oz’s mother, and her suicide, is the heart of the tale, a story that Oz approaches again and again, from every angle, in the course of all the other object-filled, talk-crowded, rescued memories in the multi-strands of his book. Its telling is carefully balanced between the perspective of the child and that of the man who has lived in the desert for half a century. Very late in the book, recalling the days after the mourning period, alone in the apartment with his father, Oz delivers his cri de coeur:
We never talked about my mother. Not a single word. Or about ourselves. Or about anything that had the least thing to do with emotions. We talked about the Cold War. We talked about the assassination of King Abdullah and the threat of a second round of fighting. My father explained to me the difference between a symbol, a parable and an allegory, and the difference between a saga and a legend… And every morning, even on these grey, damp, misty January mornings, at first light there always came from the soggy bare branches outside the pitiful chirping of [a] frozen bird… but in the depth of this winter it did not repeat [its] song several times as it had done in the summer, but said what it had to say once, and fell silent. I have hardly ever spoken about my mother till now, till I came to write these pages. Not with my father, or my wife, or my children or with anybody else.
Oz adds, “From the day of my mother’s death to the day of my father’s death, twenty years later, we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived. As if her life was just a censured page torn from a Soviet encyclopedia.” Critic John Leonard rightly uses the term “lamentation” to describe Oz’s book. In his estimate, Oz “makes up for that erasure with this indelible memoir, circling so often around the wound, inching up and closing in, that finally Fania’s furious son has no other ground to stand on.”
Well, given that this is a writer’s autobiography, there will in fact be other ground to stand on, both metaphoric and literal, although the latter will be primarily located in the desert. What anyone interested in reading about writers wants to know is how the precocious, secretive child, the eight-year-old writer of patriotic poems and a self-described “ceaseless, tireless talker,” a boy, as David Remnick says, “confused by overheard news of death camps abroad and civil war at home… who plots the history of a new country with toy soldiers and maps spread across the kitchen floor,” will evolve into an author. This is the second great strand in Oz’s Tale.
Right from the start, Oz tells us, “Books filled our home. My father could read in sixteen or seventeen languages, and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: What’s the matter with you? You can see the boy’s just there!)” That the mere utterance of the word “stallion” could be considered risque is but one of a thousand particulars by which Oz conjures up the lost world being recreated in this book. Elsewhere, Oz abjures us not to “underestimate those little details out of which, after all, the big picture is made up.” Recalling the surfeit of available writing in his childhood home, Oz adds,
The one thing we had plenty of was books. They were everywhere: from wall to laden wall, in the passage and the kitchen and the entrance and on every windowsill. Thousands of books, in every corner of the flat. I had the feeling that people might come and go, were born and died, but books went on forever. When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. Not a writer. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. But not books: however systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive and continue to enjoy a shelf-life in some corner of an out-of-the-way library somewhere, in Reykjavik, Valladolid or Vancouver.
Since one can’t, finally, be a book, perhaps the next best thing is to become a writer who makes books. Examples of such writers were close at hand. Oz’s father Arieh was a minor scholar, constantly shuffling his index card notes at the table at night. There was the famous great uncle, Joseph Klausner, author of Jesus the Jew and The History of the Second Temple, whose home in the upscale suburban neighbourhood of Talpiot the poorer branch of the family would visit on Saturday afternoons, trekking on foot all the way across Jerusalem to get there, “in the same spirit that shtetl Jews would take the train to Warsaw to see the five-story buildings.” At Uncle Joseph’s afternoon salons, there were other writers, including the renowned poet Saul Tchernikhowsky.
In a passage about the vagaries of memory, Oz suddenly says, “Almost sixty years have gone by, and yet I can still remember his smell. I summon it and it returns to me, a slightly coarse, dusty, but strong and pleasant smell… and it borders on the memory of the feel of his skin, his flowing locks, his thick moustache that rubbed against the skin of my cheek.” It’s a memory of Tchernikhowsky, who died in 1943, when Oz was little more than four years old, “so that this sensual recollection can only have survived by passing through several stages of transmission and amplification,” as do many of the invoked memories of Oz’s book.
For his parents, the story of the child sitting on the lap of the “giant of Hebrew poetry” is a cute anecdote of precocious banter and the benediction of the poet, “as if it had been Pushkin bending over and kissing the head of the little Tolstoy.” Although it was Oz’s childhood duty to confirm his parents’ oft-told story (“Yes, it’s true, I remember it very well.”), the actual memory of the now elderly Oz about his early encounter with literary greatness is that he tripped and fell over at Uncle Joseph’s home, and as he fell he bit his tongue and it bled a little. The poet, who was also a doctor, picked up the crying child, forced his mouth open and called for someone to fetch some ice. Inspecting the injury, he said something, “certainly not about handing on the crown of Pushkin to Tolstoy,” but rather, “It’s nothing, just a scratch, and as we are now weeping so shall we soon be laughing.”
The distinction between the romanticized memory and the real one is one of the writerly things that makes Oz’s Tale one of the great books of the decade. As Oz says elsewhere, breaking into a story of meeting, a quarter century later, the teacher with whom he fell desperately in love at age eight, “Naturally I am reconstructing this morning and our conversation from memory — like trying to restore an ancient ruined building on the basis of seven or eight stones that are still left standing.” And since the memory of their re-encounter is itself a quarter-century old, “In all these recollections, my task is a bit like that of someone trying to build something out of old stones that he is digging out of the ruins of something that was also, in its day, built out of stones from a ruin.” Can there be a better definition of autobiographical writing than building in the ruins of ruins?
It is also a memory from the sensorium that returns Oz to Uncle Joseph. “The smell of my uncle’s enormous library would accompany me all the days of my life: the dusty, enticing odour of seven hidden wisdoms, the smell of a silent, secluded life devoted to scholarship… the severe silence of ghosts billowing up from the deepest wells of knowledge… the cold caress of the desires of preceding generations.” And then there’s Uncle Joseph himself, curled up on a sofa in a foetal position, covered in a green and red tartan rug, who offered “a feeble wave of his translucent white hand… and said something like this:”
‘Come in, my dears, come in, come in,’ (even though we were already in the room, standing right in front of him… huddled together, my mother my father and myself, like a tiny flock that had strayed into a strange pasture) ‘and please forgive me for not standing up to greet you… for two nights and three days now I have not stirred from my desk or closed my eyes, ask Mrs. Klausner and she will testify on my behalf… while I finish this article which when it is published will cause a great stir in this land of ours, and not only here, the whole cultural world is following this debate with bated breath… And how about you?… And dear little Amos? How are you? What is new in your world? Have you read a few pages from my When a Nation Fights for its Freedom to dear little Amos yet? I believe, my dears, that of all that I have written there is nothing more suitable… to serve as spiritual sustenance to dear Amos… apart perhaps from the description of heroism and rebellion that are scattered through the pages of my History of the Second Temple… Now, my dears, follow in Mrs. Klausner’s footsteps and slake your thirst…’
It’s all there, the whole narcissistic aria of the famous old right-wing nationalist Uncle Joseph, rendered pitch-perfectly by Oz. But when it comes to sustenance, literary or other, the poorer relations of the Klausners would sneak across the street, and secretly visit the neighbour on the other side of the road (secretly because Uncle Joseph and he are great enemies), the neighbour who is none other than the Hebrew novelist S.Y. Agnon, who would subsequently receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Later in Oz’s own life, it would also be Agnon whom the young writer would call on for advice and encouragement. But, in any case, no shortage of writerly role models.
In due course, the child takes the books into his own hands and teaches himself to read. “My parents were unable to separate me from books, from morning till evening and beyond”:
They were the ones who had pushed me to read, and now they were the sorceror’s apprentice… Just come and look, your son is sitting half-naked on the floor in the middle of the corridor, if you please, reading. The child is hiding under the table, reading. That crazy child has locked himself in the bathroom again and he’s sitting on the toilet reading, if he hasn’t fallen in, book and all, and drowned himself…
Throughout, Oz discloses the wellsprings that led to his becoming a writer: his mother’s strange forest fairy tales; or making up stories himself in the third grade to ward off bullies, until he “walked around in the playground during breaks like Rabbi Nauman with his flocks of students… surrounded by a tight crush of listeners afraid of missing a single word, and among them there would sometimes be my leading persecutors, whom I would make a point of magnanimously inviting into the innermost circle”; or the occasional visits to literary cafés in Jerusalem, where his parents met with a small group of local writers. Because the perfectly-behaved child, Oz drolly remarks, was not only required to give “polite, intelligent answers… to such difficult questions as how old I was,” but to be otherwise invisible, and because “their café-talk lasted at least seventy hours,” young Amos “developed a secret little game that I could play for hours on end without moving, without speaking, with no accessories, not even a pencil and paper.”
The game consisted of looking at the strangers in the café and trying to guess,
from their clothes and gestures, from the paper they were reading or the drinks they had ordered, who they all were, where they came from, what they did… That woman over there who had just smiled to herself twice — I tried to deduce from her expression what she was thinking. That thin young man in a cap who had not taken his eyes off the door and was disappointed every time anyone came in: what was he thinking about?… On the basis of a few uncertain outward signs, I made up complicated but exciting life stories for them.
The child’s game was never abandoned by the adult writer. Oz’s 2007 novella, Rhyming Life and Death, is based on the conceit of a protagonist called “the Author,” who in the course of an evening in which he gives a public reading, conjures up the lives of all his characters exactly as the boy in the café did.
In the middle of Love and Darkness, after recounting his infatuation at age eight with his teacher, a woman named Zelda, who later turned out to be a moderately well-known poet, Oz suddenly breaks into the chronological tale and gives us a chapter-long present-day account of his everyday life as a writer in remote Arad. It’s not the story of how he became a writer (that comes later), but a portrait of being a writer.
Every morning, a little before or a little after sunrise, I am in the habit of going out to discover what is new in the desert. The desert begins here in Arad at the end of our road… I go down into the wadi and advance along a winding path to the edge of the cliff from which I have a view of the Dead Sea, nearly three thousand feet below, fifteen and a half miles away… Now you can hear the full depths of the desert silence. It isn’t the quiet before the storm, nor the silence of the end of the world, but a silence that covers another, even deeper, silence. I stand there for three or four minutes inhaling silence like a smell. Then I turn back.
He’s ready for the day’s work. On the way back there are barking dogs, a parliament of sparrows “in noisy argument… as though the departure of the night and the breaking of the day are unprecedented developments that justify an emergency meeting,” the newspaper boy, a grumpy neighbour who wants to debate politics. Maybe Oz should write a newspaper article to explain to his out-of-sorts neighbour, a Mr. Schmuelevich, “that getting out of the conquered territories will not weaken Israel but actually strengthen us. And that it’s a mistake to see the Holocaust and Hitler… everywhere.”
But he decides to put off writing the article “because an unfinished chapter of this book is waiting for me on my desk in a heap of scribbled drafts, crumpled notes and half-pages full of crossings-out.” It’s a chapter in the book we’ve already read, about a teacher at his very first school, who had an army of cats, and a surprising relationship to the young cashier at the cooperative store.
I’m going to have to make some concessions there and delete some incidents about cats and about… the cashier. They were quite amusing incidents, but they do not contribute anything to the progress of the story. Contribute? Progress? I don’t know what can contribute to the progress of the story, because as yet I have no idea where this story wants to go, and in fact why it needs contributions. Or progress.
This story about being a writer in Arad turns out to be a story of a dithering day, of getting distracted, of driving off to town to do a few errands, of meeting acquaintances and strangers, of remembering the Arab workers who built his study, who laid the floor and checked it with a spirit level, and now somebody passing the house in a little red van is extracting the letters from the letter box on the corner, and “somebody else has come to replace the broken kerbstone of the pavement opposite. I must find some way to thank them all, the way a bar mitzvah boy publicly thanks everyone who has helped him come this far.”
And right there, in the middle of his book, 300 pages in, 200 to go, Oz pauses and recites a litany of thanks, acknowledging all of them, from Aunt Sonia to the first teachers, to the man in the clothes store who rescued five year old Amos when he got lost in a dark storage closet, to Mr. Agnon and politician Simon Peres “who went to talk to Arafat again yesterday,” right on down to “the turquoise bird that sometimes visits my lemon tree. And the lemon tree itself. And especially the silence of the desert just before sunrise, that has more and more silences wrapped up inside it.” It’s an extraordinary passage of sheer gratefulness. Then Oz briskly adds, “That was my third coffee this morning. That’s enough. I put the empty mug down at the edge of the table, taking particular care not to make the slightest noise that would injure the silence that has not vanished yet. Now I shall sit down and write.” And you turn the page. There’s the new chapter about the childhood experience of visiting the home of a wealthy merchant who had been helped by Amos’s Uncle Staszek, who worked at the post office… and we’re off, onto the next adventure in the land of Oz.
Oz became a writer at Hulda kibbutz. He lived there for thirty years, fell in love with and married the daughter of the kibbutz librarian, a woman named Nily, to whom he’s still married after half a century and with whom he had three children (his eldest daughter, a historian, is named, not coincidentally, Fania). He became a writer in the back room of Herzl House, the cultural centre at the edge of the kibbutz.
This is where I went every evening to read my book until nearly midnight, until my eyelids were stuck together. And this is also where I took up writing again, when no one was looking, feeling ashamed of myself, feeling base and worthless, full of self-loathing: surely I hadn’t left Jerusalem for the kibbutz to write poems and stories but to be reborn, to turn my back on the piles of words, to be suntanned to the bone and become an agricultural worker, a tiller of the soil.
It’s a classic story of, you can take the boy out of the writing world, but you can’t take the writer out of the boy. And anyway, writing poems might be a way for a shy kid to attract the attention of those mysterious creatures, girls. What’s more, as he quickly discovers, these heroic suntanned Jews are as prone to reading books and endlessly arguing about politics as the pale, scholarly Jews back in Jerusalem. “The joke of it,” Oz says, “is that what I found at the kibbutz was the same Jewish shtetl, milking cows and talking about Kropotkin at the same time, and disagreeing about Trotsky in a Talmudic way, picking apples and having a fierce disagreement about Rosa Luxemburg.”
Oz is suitably self-deprecating about his ineptness as an agricultural labourer (“I was a disaster… I became the joke of the kibbutz”), and eventually the people at the kibbutz ship him back to Jerusalem for a year or two to get an education at the university on Mount Scopus because the kibbutz could use a teacher of literature for its secondary school. Once Oz begins to get his footing as a promising young writer, the kibbutz re-arranges his workload, giving him a few days a week to write, and a corresponding reduction of days driving tractors, picking fruit, or patrolling the kibbutz perimeters, beyond which the jackels howl at night.
But there’s a problem. “I almost gave up in despair,” says Oz. For,
surely to write like Remarque or Hemingway you had to get out of here into the real world, go to places where men were virile as a fist and women were tender as the night, where bridges spanned wide rivers and the evenings sparkled with the lights of bars where real life really happened. No one who lacked experience of that world could get even half a temporary permit to write stories or novels. The place of a real writer was not here but out there, in the big wide world. Until I got out of here and lived in a real place there was not a hope that I could find anything to write about.
Then, the breakthrough. In the kibbutz library in 1959, Oz finds the newly translated into Hebrew edition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919).
The whole of Winesburg, Ohio was a string of stories and episodes that grew out of each other and were connected to each other, particularly because they all took place in a single poor, God-forsaken provincial town. It was filled with small-time people: an old carpenter, an absent-minded young man, some hotel owner and a servant girl… The stories in Winesburg, Ohio all revolved around trivial, everyday happenings, based on snatches of local gossip or on unfulfilled dreams… So Sherwood Anderson’s stories brought back what I had put behind me when I left Jerusalem, or rather the ground that my feet had trodden all through my childhood and that I had never bothered to touch.
Anderson’s modest book hit young Oz “like a Copernican revolution in reverse.” Whereas Copernicus showed that our world is not the centre of the universe but just one planet among others, Anderson showed that the written world “always revolves around the hand that is writing wherever it happens to be writing: where you are is the centre of the universe.” It’s not you who is the centre of the universe, but “where you are.” For nearly “a whole summer night until half past three in the morning I walked the paths of the kibbutz like a drunken man, talking to myself, trembling like a love-sick swain, singing and skipping…” Literally: eureka! And then, at that early hour when labour begins at the kibbutz, he put on his work clothes and boots and joined the work-party at the tractor shed, from where they set out for a field to weed the cotton. But now, after work, things were different:
And so I chose myself a corner table in the deserted study room, and here every evening I opened my brown school exercise book on which was printed “utility” and also “forty pages.” Next to it I laid out a ballpoint pen called Globus, a pencil with a rubber tip, printed with the name of the trade-union retail outlets, and a beige plastic cup of tapwater. And this was the centre of the universe.
From that day to the present one, all the rest is just a matter of listening to the silence, and hearing the voices that emerge from it. As Oz told Newsweek interviewer Joanna Chen (“The Bitter Taste of Dreams Come True,” Newsweek, Feb. 14, 2008), who asked him how he plans his books, “I don’t plan them. It’s sudden. I hear some voices inside my head, voices of characters, voices of people.” The interviewer wanted to know if he heard the voice of his mother. “Sometimes, yes,” Oz replied. “I very often hear the voices of dead people.” But what if a person doesn’t want to hear the voices of dead people? the interviewer persisted.
Not hearing those voices is missing part of yourself, part of your life. When I wrote A Tale of Love and Darkness, I was inviting the dead to my home for coffee. I said to them, “Sit down. Let’s have a cup of coffee and talk. When you were alive we didn’t talk much. We talked about politics and current affairs, but we didn’t talk about things that matter… And after the talk and the coffee you’ll go away. You’re not staying to live in my home. But you are invited to drop by from time to time for a cup of coffee.” This in my view is the right way to treat the dead.
It’s almost impossible to have a sane conversation about Israel anywhere in the world. If you’re in the company of conservatives, and you offer a justifiable criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, of the ever-encroaching settlements outside the country’s borders, of its over-violent response to violence, it’s as likely as not that it will be suggested that you’re an anti-semite, and if you happen to be a Jew as well, a self-hating anti-semite. If you’re in the company of progressives and radicals of the left, and you so much as hint that the Palestinian leadership is something less than lovely and heroic, or that Israel should be regarded as a fact of realpolitik, someone will soon label you an imperialist Zionist lackey or worse. In short, it hasn’t been a good decade for genuine liberals to talk about the Middle East. Nor have the populations of Israel and Palestine, who seem to have a penchant for choosing extremists of various stripes to lead them, made it any easier.
Amos Oz, whose seventieth birthday in spring 2009 was marked in Israel by further awards, extensive media coverage, and academic conferences about his work, is a liberal Zionist. He’s also one of the sanest persons in Israel.
The final strand of A Tale of Love and Darkness is, necessarily, the story of the founding of Israel, mostly as seen through a child’s eyes. In a child’s curious perspective, the battles and bombardments of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War register almost impartially with the death of a pet tortoise killed by shrapnel in the back yard or the sniper-shooting of a neighbour’s child from down the street. I’ve already stitched together enough passages from the book’s other major themes that I needn’t reprise in detail Oz’s version of the embattled birth of Israel.
The Klausner family in which Oz grew up, particularly the boy’s renowned Uncle Joseph, were conservatives, politically followers of the right-wing leader, sometime terrorist, and later prime minister, Menachem Begin. Not only were the British, the Palestinians whom they had displaced, and the entire Arab world their enemies, but so were their socialistic, impious, kibbutz-supporting, Labour Party rivals, led by David Ben-Gurion.
Oz tells a long, funny story of accompanying his grandfather to a Begin public speech, where the demagogic speaker, unfamiliar with the younger generation’s use of Hebrew, repeatedly mis-used a verb he think means “to arm,” but which was actually used as an obscenity for sexual intercourse. Begins complains that the Egyptians are being armed, the Palestinians are being armed, everybody is being armed, but how come no one is arming us? The boy falls into helpless, convulsive laughter, to the embarrassment of his prominent Klausner grandfather and the other grandees sitting in the front rows, and has to be dragged by the ear out of the hall. Oz represents this as his initial break with the Israeli right. Later, on the kibbutz, while working in an orchard, one of the older and wiser heads points out to him that childish snickering over a faux-pas is not really a good basis for political judgments.
It was also on the kibbutz, during the time that Oz was doing his military service, that he published a newspaper article mildly challenging the philosophical musings of David Ben-Gurion, commander of the Israeli forces, and received a summons from the great man to come in for a chat at dawn. The ensuing encounter, like the Begin story, is a great set piece, and offers a rather charming portrait of the vain, grandiose figure who was one of Israel’s founders. Oz’s aim in his Tale is to give us the flavour of the context of growing up in a land where “for us, history is interwoven with biography… One can almost say history is biography,” as he remarks in an essay from In the Land of Israel (reprinted in Nitza Ben-Dov, ed., The Amos Oz Reader, 2009). But he’s not here to argue the case.
The arguments nonetheless emerge from his life. As Oz’s daughter Fania, who teaches history at Haifa University, told David Remnick, A Tale of Love and Darkness can be read, in part, as an argument about the history of Zionism. Remnick reports, “The book, she said, portrays Zionism and the creation of Israel as a historical necessity for a people faced with the threat of extinction. It acknowledges the original sin of Israel — the displacement and the suffering of the Palestinians — but, at the same time, defends Zionism against some… who challenge the state’s claim to legitimacy even now, six decades after its founding.”
Oz tells Remnick, “If there had been no Zionism, six and a half million would be dead rather than six million, and who would have cared? Israel was a life raft for a half-million Jews.” In the long run, though, was Zionism a mistake? Remnick asks. “I don’t think there was any real practical choice,” Oz replies. “When anti-semitism in Europe became unbearable, Jews might have preferred to go to the United States, but they had no chance in hell in the thirties of being admitted to America.” In his Tale, Oz tells the story of one of his grandfathers who was turned down for French, British and Scandinavian visas, and was “so desperate that he even applied for German citizenship, eighteen months before Hitler came to power. Fortunately for me, he was turned down.” Oz’s point is that “the Jews had nowhere to go, and this is difficult to convey today. People now ask, Was it good to come here? Was it a mistake? Was Zionism a reasonable project? There was no place else.”
If the Israelis can make an ancient claim to the Promised Land on the basis of Biblical myth as well as a contemporary claim of historical necessity, there’s also a legal fact of real politics. That legal fact was the two-thirds majority United Nations vote in November 1947 that declared the creation of a two-state partition of the British-ruled Palestinian protectorate. The night of that vote, as Oz recounts in his Tale, when all of Kerem Avraham neighbourhood was awake and huddled around a radio, was the one and only time he saw his father weep.
The declaration of the founding of the state of Israel came the following May, with the expiration of the British mandate. That night, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq invaded. In books like In the Land of Israel, Oz clearly “harbors no illusions about that war,” Remnick observes, “least of all about the displacement of more than seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs from their villages and cities and about their lives of misery in refugee camps throughout the region.” At the same time, as Oz drily remarks, the Arabs were “under no obligation” to start a war in the wake of the U.N.-authorized partition plan. Again, Oz invokes historical necessity: “One minute after midnight we were told that Israel is being invaded by five regular Arab armies, and that there was shelling and bombardment by artillery batteries. There was nowhere to send the kids, nowhere to go.”
Oz’s political evolution, which isn’t really a primary subject of his memoir, began with the kibbutz and military duty. In the late 1950s, while doing his military service, he was involved in skirmishes along the Syrian border. He served with a tank unit in Sinai during the 1967 war, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War he was with a unit in the Golan Heights, on the Syrian border. Remnick wonders why there’s almost no mention in A Tale of Love and Darkness of Oz’s participation in the army.
“It is difficult for me… to talk about the experience of fighting,” Oz replies. “I have never written about the battlefield because I don’t think I could convey the experience of fighting to people who have not been on the battlefield. Battle consists first and foremost of a horrible stench. The battlefield stinks to high heaven… This doesn’t come across even in Tolstoy or Hemingway or Remarque. This stifling mixture of burning rubber and burning metal and burning human flesh and feces, everything burning. It is where everyone around you had shit their pants.”
His experiences gave him a “gut hatred of war and fighting,” he says in another interview (Aida Edemariam, “A life in writing: Amos Oz,” The Guardian, Feb. 14, 2009), but “I am not a pacifist in terms of turning the other cheek. There is a difference between myself and some of the peace people in Europe: whereas they think that the ultimate evil in the world is war, I think the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and aggression sometimes must be repelled by force.” Oz recalls a Holocaust survivor relative, later a peace activist herself, who said to him, “You know, we were liberated from the concentration camp not by peace demonstrators carrying placards, but by American soldiers carrying submachine guns.”
In fact, it was war that motivated Oz to become one of his own country’s most prominent peace activists. Two months after the end of the 1967 war, he sent an article called “Land of the Forefathers” to a Labour newspaper calling for the Israeli government to begin negotiations immediately with the Palestinians over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” he wrote. He was one of the early advocates of a two-state solution, an end to occupation, and a secure division of Israel and Palestine. In 1978, Oz, along with other liberals and former Army officers and reservists, was a founder of the grassroots movement, Peace Now.
Three decades later, the same intelligence is applied to the 2009 Israeli retaliatory invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza. “I am outraged with both Hamas and the Israelis in this war,” he told an interviewer, “it’s an anger in both directions… Israelis were genuinely infuriated, as was I, about the harassment… and rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages for years and years by Hamas from Gaza. And the public mood was ‘Let’s teach them a lesson.’ Trouble is, this so-called lesson went completely out of proportion. There is no comparison between the suffering… that Gaza inflicted on Israel for eight years, and the suffering, devastation and death Israel inflicted on Gaza in twenty days. No proportion at all,” Oz laments, in the killing of 300 Palestinian children, hundreds of innocent civilians, thousands of demolished homes, and the possible use of dirty bombs. “There is no justification. No way this could be justified.”
Nor is Oz a sentimentalist about the eventual two-state solution, even though through most of the first decade of the new century it seemed a distant, if not dead prospect. “It is the only possible solution,” he said in 2009. “There is no other possible solution. And I would say more than that. Down below, the majority of Israeli Jews and the majority of Palestinian Arabs know that at the end of the day there will be two states. Are they happy about it? No, they are not. Will they be dancing in the streets of Israel and in Palestine when the two-state solution is implemented? No, they will not. But they know it.”
Over the years, Oz has developed a formulation that he repeats like a refrain. The situation in the Middle East is “a clash between right and right — the Palestinians are in Palestine because they have no other place in the world. The Israeli Jews are in Israel for the same reaason — they have no other place in the world. This provides for a perfect understanding and a terrible tragedy.” Or, as Oz put it to another interviewer who wanted to know if there couldn’t be a happy ending in the holy land: “No, I don’t believe in a happy ending to this kind of tragic conflict… Any compromise will mean concession; it will mean renouncing something which both parties very strongly regard as their own… There are no happy compromises.” Perhaps the defense of “no happy compromises” is a definition of liberalism, a liberalism that has received little hearing in times of unreason.
The story of the birth of Israel and the argument about politics is the least prominent strand in A Tale of Love and Darkness, a book primarily about grief and self-fashioning, but it’s the context that permeates everything else in the story. There’s also a little epilogue to the publishing history of Oz’s Tale. In 2004, George Khoury, a 20-year-old student at Hebrew University, the son of a prominent family of Palestinian lawyers, was shot to death by a group of men passing in a car who miistakenly identified him as a Jew. Though the Palestinian authorities personally apologised to the family, the boy’s father, Elias Khoury, rejected the overture. “Terrorism is blind,” the father told Israeli radio. “It does not discriminate between Jews and Arabs, or between the good and the bad.”
Through various friends, the boy’s uncle, also a lawyer, met with Amos Oz. The family wanted to make a public gesture to demonstrate their feelings about the killing of George Khoury, something beyond their private grief. Although Oz’s work has been translated into all the major languages of the world, few of his books have been translated into Arabic. It was suggested that the family read A Tale of Love and Darkness and consider underwriting a translation into Arabic. The dedication to the Arabic edition would be a tribute to the murdered boy, written by Oz. “Please see if that is acceptable to your family,” Oz said. “I certainly will,” the uncle replied. Subsequently, the Khoury family agreed to underwrite the translation, although neither the family nor the author expected that its readers would somehow be converted by the book. At best, it might expand a recognition that there are many tales of love and darkness in the lands of Israel and Palestine.
Berlin, July 16, 2009